Dickens’ taste in plot seems to have been influenced by the eighteenth-century novelist Henry Fielding (Joseph Andrews, 1742; Tom Jones, 1749) than by anyone else. In any event, the typical Dickens plot, like the plots of Fielding, is complicated, loosely constructed, and highly dramatic in the incidents that make it up. The main plot is usually interwoven with a number of subplots that involve numerous incidents and cover a period of several, or many, years. Such multiplicity militates against the possibility of feeling the story’s unity distinctly — that is, of holding all the incidents in our mind at once and feeling their connectedness. Plot looseness (looseness of construction) can mean various things. Some of the subplots may not be related to the main plot; one or more of the subplots may be more tightly developed or inherently more interesting than the main plot; creaky devices of highly improbable coincidence may be brought in to get the author out of a jam created by lack of advance planning; or the main plot itself may consist of several self-contained episodes rather than of a central, developing, unified action. The main plot of Bleak House — the story of Lady Dedlock’s past unfolding in the present and developing into a new situation that involves the book’s other heroine, Esther Summerson — though complicated is artistically controlled, and the subplots are kept subordinate and, for the most part, are woven smoothly into it.
Plot, in the sense of meaningfully related mental and physical actions, implies directed movement and change. It therefore possesses inherent energy, dynamism. Dickens, an energetic, ambitious, relatively extroverted artist, a born entertainer and lover of vivacity, could be expected to put much of his novelistic stock in plot. This disposition alone would also explain the fact that Dickens’ books feature highly dramatic — sometimes melodramatic — sentences. Dickens loved histrionic, action-crammed theatre. He haunted London’s theatres, wrote and acted in several plays himself, and loved to give dramatic readings. It isn’t surprising that he allowed theatre itself to influence his fiction.
In the twentieth century, the deliberately “plotless” novel has had a certain vogue. A number of talented and not-so-talented writers (Virginia Woolf, among the former) decided that since life itself from hour to hour and day to day is seldom dramatic and (worse yet!) sometimes not even noticeably meaningful, truly lifelike (realistic) fiction could forego the luxury of plot. Taking its cue from such writers and their admiring critics, classroom teaching of literature has shown a tendency to think that only bumpkins insist on plot. The same indifference to, or contempt for plot has been shown by writers who proffer, and critics and teachers who want, a social-political (ideological) message more than anything else. Finally, as the stock of writers’ and critics’ psychological or psychiatric probing of characters has gone up, the value of plot has gone correspondingly down.
It may be worthwhile to note that meaningful action, whether physical or mental, does have a certain charm. In fact, at least outside the English classroom and the critical essay, it is common knowledge that of all the kinds of material that may be presented to us, meaningful action is the kind most likely to hold our interest and generate excitement. Whatever literary critics “in the know” may claim, the fact is that the human species has an insatiable thirst for directed action, whether physical as at Wimbledon or mental as in Elsinore. It is also a fact that virtually all of the stories and plays that have come to be regarded as classics, from the Iliad to Kim, have been “full of plot.”